Molly Parkin

Molly Parkin


Words & Photography Robert Chilcott


“I met Nina Simone and Ella Fitzgerald, all people of that ilk. All people of that ilk. Where else would you meet them except in Soho?”

Molly Parkin is 83 and now prefers life in the garden, a veritable paradise of palm trees and plastic Buddhas, castaway in Chelsea’s World’s End.  Currently appearing on BBC4’s Bohemian series with Victoria Coren-Mitchell, she reminisces over a Fentiman’s Ginger Beer, about the halcyon days of post-war Britain, and the forbidden allure of W1. “Sohoitis, the state of it, really applies to those who live on their addictions. And Soho is utterly addictive. It’s not a dreamy state of being, Sohoitis.” She laughs. “You don’t go to Soho for a pleasant afternoon, perhaps tea out and then go home! Soho is limitless in the hours that you spend there. It did take over my life. The very first time that I went there I knew that something so extraordinary was in the air.”

Molly first came to London from the Welsh Valley to live with her grandparents 1939. Fresh from studying Fine Arts, as a 22 year old chapel girl, she shared a flat with her friends, Judy and Betty in Earl’s Court. “I had chamomile lotion all over my face, very, very pale, lots of black pencil all around the eyes. A lot of black hair, I was really based on Juliette Greco.”  Her earliest Soho memories are of The Studio Club in Swallow Street, run by the artist John Minton. “I said to Judy, ‘These men are all asking me what I want to drink and I don’t what to say to them,’ and she said, ‘Oh you are so quaint darling. Well what you say is a gin and Dubonnet please, and make it a double because a single won’t begin to touch it.’” Molly reminisces on her innocence at the time. “Well I didn’t realise at the time – gin and Dubonnet – that’s two alcoholic drinks merged into one. I thought that Dubonnet was like cordial or something. So, when the next person asked ‘Can I buy you lovely girls a drink?’ I said ‘Yes, I would like a gin and Dubonnet, but make it a double because a single won’t begin to touch it.’ He burst out laughing. I asked, ‘can I have a straw please, because it’ll go down quicker then,’ as if it was in a candy shop. So I drank it all in one. And I smacked my lips and said ‘Wow!’” That wasn’t all though, as Molly continues her anecdote, “So his friend asked, ‘Can I buy you a second?’ ‘Yeah’ I answered, ‘I shouldn’t say so, but I said again, ‘make it a double because a single doesn’t begin to touch it.’ And he burst out laughing. Well, I was nearly carried out of there.”

It wasn’t long before Molly was introduced to the Colony Room. “I went up those scruffy stairs, I thought ‘Christ! What is this place?’ And there I was, quite frightened really, because I’d never seen faces like that – so lived in, and yet so sophisticated. Brendan Behan was there – and Colin MacInnes. There was pounding on the jazz piano. What was different was there were a lot of writers, and I started listening to how they constructed their sentences – it was a different way of conversation, the way they spoke, however much they’d had to drink. It was such a tiny place, yet brimming with benevolence. They all shouted ‘Come back, Moll. When will you be coming again?’ and I said I could be here tomorrow.” Molly laughs candidly, “and I was there tomorrow. You see, Sohoitis had already captured my heart and soul, introduced me to heaven. Not everybody would have thought it was heaven. But I knew that I’d come home.”

In 1965, traumatised by her first divorce, Molly’s painting muse disappeared. Molly’s situation led to her accepting the job of fashion editor at Nova magazine, in order to support her two small daughters, which didn’t sit lightly with her ideals, as she tells me of a mantra she learnt whilst studying: “If you had been trained as an intellectual, art for art’s sake, you can expect to be a waitress for the rest of your life, but move amongst artists. In art school they said if you are going to specialise as a painter you stick with other fine art students, and you avoid, more than anything, the shallowness of the fashion crew, who only think about putting clothes on models. And people who specialise in illustration, because when they leave they are going to be in advertising – the lowest of the low, culturally speaking. Well to be a fashion editor to me seemed like the lowest you can really sink.”

Molly says that during this time she never went to the Colony “I didn’t feel like I belonged there. I just used to go to Terratza. That was around the corner. I was slugging wine – that is when my drinking started to get out of control, and delightfully so. I started taking on a lot of lovers. I’d go to Paris and pick up things you couldn’t find in London from the collections. But I didn’t feel like I belonged with the intellectuals in the Colony. I so highly regarded it.”

After a stint at Harper’s, Molly found herself doing five years on The Sunday Times Look pages, “I was taught to write there, and strangely enough that’s when I started to go back to the Colony: again, with other writers. I was on the television a lot. It doesn’t take much, the hospitality of all of that, to make you lose your nerves. So by the time I got on the telly I didn’t know what I was saying.”

Molly gave up drinking at 55 and soon after her painting muse, absent for 30 years, returned. The life Molly describes, and the Soho she talks of does seem to have gone. Are people there still living that life, or are they simply living it somewhere else? I ask her, “You had to be free to give all of yourself to Soho. That was my experience. And now that I’m 83 and sitting in the garden, in the bower, I’m so thrilled that I had that time in Soho”.

It’s saddening to learn that Molly rarely goes to Soho these days. “It broke my heart recently – the final downturn for me was when, arguably one of the best art stockists, Cowling and Wilcox, ‘round the corner from Berwick Street market, that’s gone. I said to the lovely chaps that sell vegetables, it’s as if the soul of the place has disappeared from the body. It’s too depressing for words what’s happening to London. I never thought I’d say this: the Sohoitis, it doesn’t exist anymore.”

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